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Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters
Posted on Aug 1, 2008
So, let’s set the record straight here. Journalists like Barbara Walters are entertainers. Barbara Walters may be more than the sum of her plum jobs and “big gets,” but she’s a celebrity, even if she treats them as a separate class in her book. Anyone who receives giggly personal notes from her Bel Air neighbor, Nancy Reagan, about borrowing cups of sugar is either really rich or really famous, and Walters is both. Barbara Walters’ memoir is thus a celebrity memoir. A 624-page celebrity memoir just might hold a lot of celeb secrets, so many people are liable to buy it (sorry, sister, but it’s not your sublime prose that does the trick). This, more than anything else, explains its major success. As a celebrity, Barbara Walters has a formidable publicity team, which, like the publicity teams of other major celebrities, has the ability to generate major buzz for Walters’ major memoir. Don’t buy it? Try writing a potentially unflattering story about Walters in a passably prominent publication and get ready for a fun phone call, or 10, from ABC’s PR SWAT team.
Full disclosure: I once received about five such calls from ABC. In the spirit of autobiographical revelation, let me break into first-person mode for a brief interlude. In 2002, I was working as a reporter for a gossip column at the New York Daily News. Like several of my colleagues at the paper, I started out as a cub reporter on the gossip beat, briefly working as an adjunct member of the “celebrity-industrial complex,” as Maureen Orth branded it in “The Importance of Being Famous.” In gossip, anything that could happen on other beats, and a lot of things that couldn’t, was guaranteed to happen.
During my training at the column, I was assigned to find out whether ABC reps had a response to a story, not about Walters but about another of their big stars, that didn’t demonstrate the best professional judgment on said star’s part. Over the next few hours, I was alternately yelled at, pleaded with, leveled with “journalist to journalist” and otherwise given a crash course in crisis communications by the head of ABC’s PR department. Meanwhile, our source, who claimed he’d incurred minor personal property damage in the alleged incident, called excitedly to report that ABC was also contacting him, making unrefusable offers to compensate for his trouble. Those people don’t mess around when it comes to their top celebrities—such as Barbara Walters.
This is not meant to be a blanket dismissal of the intrinsic worth of Walters’ life story or that of anyone else who happens to be famous. It’s also not an argument for stars to somehow step outside of the contexts that formed them to issue poignant social commentaries about stardom and consumer culture; that would be something like expecting Howard Stern to lead a feminist consciousness-raising session on his radio show. Nor is it a retread of Neil Postman’s lament about “amusing ourselves to death.” While it’s valid to point out that coverage of celebrities has become a highly contagious rash on news programs and publications of all kinds in the U.S. and abroad, that argument has been made already. Also, it doesn’t leave room for what communication scholars call “negotiated” readings of a text—or to paraphrase, the idea that all viewers don’t interact with every media product the same way, passively absorbing messages without any wiggle room for creativity or skepticism.
At one point in “Audition,” Walters describes a formula she uses to case out an unfamiliar country while traveling: “My theory has always been: show me a department store and I’ll show you how people live.” I would submit a slightly modified version by way of a conclusion: Show me a local celebrity and I’ll show you what people value. A perceptive fellow named Leo Lowenthal pursued a similar line of thinking about 70 years ago by conducting a content analysis of biographies published in popular magazines over the first few decades of the 20th century. He found that, increasingly, the people those publications found to be worth profiling were not “idols of production” who became renowned for discovering, or uncovering, or doing things in “serious” professions like engineering, aviation, education, or medicine. Rather, they were “idols of consumption” who epitomized a life of leisure and taught readers by lived example how to become good consumers. Highly alarmed by these developments, Lowenthal said his findings represented “the first stages of the greatest crisis since the birth of the Union” (i.e., the eventual creation of a nation of automatons obsessed with consumption).
Lowenthal’s dim assessment can seem hard to contest, especially when watching local or national TV newscasts and clocking the amount of time devoted to, say, stories about the Iraq war versus celebrity “news.” Mass media hysteria aside, though, celebrities are here to stay, and there are more of them than ever—ignore them at your own peril. Not only is the line between celebrity and journalism becoming very blurry, but so is the line between celebrity and politics. (Don’t buy it? Try calling your local representative in Washington as a regular citizen with a serious concern you’d like addressed. Now make a similar call but say you have Bono holding on the line.) For this reason and many others, rejecting celebrity as a concept worthy of any serious consideration is not always productive; nor is refusing to truck with consumer culture. Righteous indignation can be galvanizing, but where and how exactly would one live totally apart from all this?
Any change that happens on these fronts probably won’t come from big media or big stars themselves—except for the Angelina or Bono variety, to an extent. Expecting stars of any species to go away or to save the world is absurd, as their primary function is to continue being celebrated and bringing in the money for themselves and the throngs of orbiting handlers and hangers-on who rely on them. For newsmakers like Barbara Walters, it doesn’t pay to stray too far from the script. And besides, there’s an army of stylists, agents, producers and publicists always at the ready to make sure they never do.
Kasia Anderson has a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and has been a Web journalist in San Francisco and an entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News. Currently, she is Truthdig’s associate editor and is at work on a doctoral dissertation on celebrity and politics.
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